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The African Union’s E-Passport Can Make Intra-African Travel & Trade Easier Than Ever Before

“The scene seems to be set to realize the dream of visa-free travel for African citizens within their own continent by 2020.”

On a 26-hour bus ride between Accra and Ouagadougou, Nanjala Nyabola sat next to a Burkinabe woman who had never met a Kenyan before who proceeds to grill her about life in Nairobi. Nyabola wrote about the unique pleasures of traveling the continent as an African for us in March.


Earlier this month, in a spirit of Pan-Africanism, the African Union announced they would be launching an electronic passport system at its next summit in Kigali, Rwanda in July. The announcement is the first step to a more open and flourishing Africa that tangibly benefits its citizens. It also has the potential to dismantle imposed colonial borders. Overall, it’ll make it easier for Africans to move for better educational and professional opportunities as well as conduct business across borders.

Nyabola’s encounter illustrates how intra-African tourism has been severely underdeveloped caused by highly restrictive visa requirements among the continent’s 54 countries. Exorbitant costs in transportation, particularly air travel, an underwhelming culture of leisure travel in addition to stereotypes Africans from different countries have about each other have also contributed to some countries' relative isolation.

As it stands, only 13 countries on the African continent allow visa-free entry or will issue temporary permit upon arrival, with Americans, one of the holders of the world’s most powerful passports benefiting the most.

Consequently, regional trade has suffered because of regulatory barriers that inhibit the exchange of goods and services. To put this in perspective, intra-African trade costs are approximately 50 percent higher than in East Asia, and the most costly for any developing region. Bureaucratic tape such as permits, licenses and other customs requirements makes it that trucks transporting goods across borders have to carry more than 1,600 documents. These factors are popular topics of discussion for Africa’s policy wonks.

“[It’s] a steady step toward the objective of creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage,” Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) says in the AU’s statement announcing the program launch.

The AU’s flagship program fulfills aspirations two and seven of Agenda 2063, both of which touch on fostering an “integrated” and “united” Africa. A single passport system can help promote a shared identity among the 3,000 distinct ethnic groups on the African continent. Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Ghana have already relaxed their visa restrictions or lifted visa requirements completely.

This concept of open borders isn’t particularly novel, it was outlined in the Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty. Of course, the e-passport will be only a first step. AU member states still have to adopt the procedures and legislation for it to go into effect. And xenophobia presents another challenge.

As Nyabola articulates in How to Travel Africa as an African, “It never ceases to amaze me how easily we absorb other people’s prejudices about each other, without reflecting on who disseminates these stereotypes and why.” Adding, “I’m ashamed to admit that for most of my life, I had been afraid of Africa because most of the information I received about other countries has been filtered through the West.”

Plans are to roll out the e-passport to AU Heads of State and Government; Ministers of Foreign Affairs; and the Permanent Representatives of AU Member States based at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia first at the 27th AU Summit next month.

And so “the scene seems to be set to realize the dream of visa-free travel for African citizens within their own continent by 2020,” as the AU states.

Music

6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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